The Modern Age

In preparing for the publication of American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940, the IQM Collections team conducted object reviews of over 600 quilts, the majority coming from the James Collection. IQM curators analyzed the accumulated data and both confirmed and debunked prior assumptions about “Modern Age” (late 19th- and early 20th-century) quilts. They did so within an overarching theme of modernism versus anti-modernism, identifying areas in American culture and quiltmaking that either embraced the country’s rush towards technological and societal progress or shied away from it.

For instance, the commonly held assumption that machine sewing in quiltmaking dramatically increased after the Civil War, when access to sewing machines grew, was borne out by the object reviews: of the quilts made between 1865-1900, 40% contained some amount of machine stitching while that number grew to 60% in quilts made between 1901 and 1940 (prior to the Civil War, machine stitching on quilts is rare). On the other hand, Crazy quilts, which have often been held up as the epitome of late-Victorian handwork and thus a symbol of the rejection of industrialization, frequently have some machine stitching on them. Of the 64 Crazy quilts examined, a surprising 73% were constructed at least partially with a machine (albeit often in less visible areas). Having access to a large and diverse sample of quilts enabled IQM researchers to reach more nuanced conclusions about quilts made between the Civil War and World War II.